It’s been a month since Newark officials stopped widespread distribution of free bottled water, after they said expanded testing showed that tap filters were working to remove lead contamination from city drinking water in a part of town where elevated readings had been detected.
But on Monday, city residents were again picking up bottled water — in this case, from pallets donated by a Texas charity — saying they are still worried about the dangerous element in their drinking water and expressing doubts about the assurances offered by officials.
Among those who stopped by Paradise Baptist Church was Cassandra Pullin, who claims city officials said she wasn’t eligible for the limited water they are still distributing, mostly to pregnant women and families with small children, because apartment buildings like hers don’t have the lead service lines that have been tagged as the culprit in the lead crisis.
“They’re picking and choosing who they want to give water to — at least, that’s how I feel,” she said, noting that she is pregnant and has two small children.
A steady stream of residents lined up for water at the church on 15th Avenue. Some said they were turned down by the city when they asked for lead filters and water.
“They told me my area was good, but evidently it’s still not good,” said resident Linda Hoover. “I don’t trust the water, still.”
Filters are intended as a short-term protection
In early October, city officials stopped widespread water distribution, after reporting that tests of PUR filters conducted with the federal Environmental Protection Agency proved they worked in 97% of samples.
The filters are intended as a short-term protection for impacted residents, while the city implements a new corrosion-control treatment. It’s also working on a long-term solution to replace all lead service lines within two years, tapping a $120 million loan from Essex County. It has done 2,000 lines, so far.
But critics say the recent action follows months of mixed — and sometimes inaccurate — messaging by City Hall.
“Many people, frankly, don’t trust the water right now and are insisting on using bottled water,” said Erik Olson of Natural Resources Defense Council. “And once that trust is broken, it’s hard to regain it.”
The national environmental advocacy group had teamed with a city organization to sue Newark over lead contamination, filing a new complaint on Oct. 25 that requests renewed wide water distribution by the city, independent oversight of the city’s lead testing protocols and more transparency. The new complaint also seeks information on the EPA lead filter tests, which haven’t been released.
“The city is saying that the water filters work 97% to 99% of the time, but they haven’t been willing to share that data publicly,” Olson said.
In a statement, the city defended its actions: “Newark’s response to our lead situation is unprecedented and we wish people would stick to the facts instead of trying to fuel hysteria for their own self-serving aggrandizement. […] No major city has ever undertaken such a task with such expedience, and will complete it so quickly. That is the real story here.”
Residents have also complained that, despite a new $1 million, door-to-door public information program, official instructions about how to use the tap filters still confuse some people.
“Even with the filter system, they’re saying, ‘Look, when you get up in the morning, turn it on and let it run for 10 minutes. And then the filter should start working,” said Bishop Jethro James of the Paradise Baptist Church.
Meanwhile the Texas charity — JB Dondolo, Inc., which raised $2,000 at a charity function in Dallas specifically for Newark — plans to deliver another six pallets of water soon. Paradise Baptist has handed out 60,000 cases already.